The use of cranberry juice cocktail behind the bar in recent decades has helped shape a new generation of cocktails. Cranberries—one of just a few fruits native to North America and a wild diet staple of Native Americans for centuries—became cultivated around 1816 and seriously marketed to urban populations when cranberry cooperatives spent $5000 on cranberry advertising in 1918 and increased sales over $1 million. These early 20th century cranberries were sold either canned or fresh, though the market remained largely seasonal. In 1930 Ocean Spray put a cranberry juice cocktail on the market, though cranberry juice had been made by pilgrim settlers as early as 1683 (Eastwood, 1856).
Concerns of the ensuing Prohibition Era (1919-1933) affected the cranberry industry. Because cranberry products revolved around seasonal family holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, the industry consciously chose not to associate themselves with alcohol, which could have potentially alienated their largest consumer base (Felten, 2008). Testing the libatious waters, in 1945 Ocean Spray began to play with a cocktail called The Red Devil (vodka and cranberry juice cocktail), and in 1955 the cranberry industry released a pamphlet for the Toll House Cocktail, which had an optional addition for rum.
Cranberry Crash & Recovery
In 1959 the cranberry market collapsed when the US Department of Health announced that aminotriazole—a dangerous herbicide—tainted the cranberry crop. Producers searched to bolster their businesses through diversifying cranberry products to expand the industry market and Ocean Spray released their first cranberry juice in the form of a cranberry-apple blend. Most likely spurred by the 1959 cranberry crash Ocean Spray partnered with Tropico and released a bottled drink called “Sea Breeze” made of Ocean Spray cranberry juice and Don Cossack vodka. In 1965 they advertized for the Cape Codder—their version being cranberry juice and vodka whereas earlier 1940s versions called for cranberry juice and rum (Felten).
Demand for cranberry juice rose in the 1980s, correlating with reports about the health benefits of the fruit.
Juice or Cocktail?
There is a distinct difference between bitter and intense cranberry juice and sweet and fruity cranberry juice cocktail. The phrase “cranberry juice” is frequently used to reference cranberry juice cocktail, causing many people to refer to cranberry juice as “100% cranberry juice” to distinguish it from cranberry juice cocktail. To heighten the confusion, most cocktail recipes that use the juice call for “cranberry juice,” but really mean “cranberry juice cocktail.”
There are several cranberry cocktails that pre-date lead up to the Cosmopolitan craze of the 1990s predate:
Vodka and cranberry juice cocktail. Ocean Spray created this cocktail to promote cranberry juice cocktail circa 1945. Originally, they called it "The Red Devil."
Vodka, cranberry juice cocktail, and orange juice.
The Bog Fog
See Rangoon Ruby
Vodka, cranberry juice cocktail, and lime juice.
The Rangoon Ruby
During the 1950’s in Oakland, California, Victor J. Bergeron served the Rangoon Ruby at the restaurant Trader Vic’s (Chirico, 2009). Bergeron also invented the Mai Tai in 1944 at this same restaurant (Bergeron, 1970). The Rangoon Ruby was a highball of vodka, cranberry juice, soda, and a lime slice. The Rangoon Ruby also became popular as the Bog Fog in Miami and Palm Beach (Felten).
Cranberry Juice in the 1990s
Cranberry Juice Cocktail was embraced as a bar staple in the 1990s. It became one of those juices that you could ask for in almost any restaurant or bar, due to its long-term shelf life and ease of storage (no refrigeration necessary!). The popularity of The Cosmopolitan epitomizes this, and does not need much explanation.
Backlash in the 21st Century
Today, there is a backlash against cranberry juice cocktail. Ironically, people choose not to stock bars with it these days for the same reason that it was popular in the 1990s: it practically never goes bad. In the 21st Century, bartenders followed the farm-to-table ethos of their chef counterparts and moved away from pre-packaged products behind the bar. Fresh squeezed juices, garnishes, and produce, an emphasis on local spirits and products (if available), and a shift away from simple syrup as the staple sweetener occurred in the early 2000s. Cranberry juice cocktail-- an ultra-pasteurized, sugary product with only a small amount of real cranberry juice in it-- was abandoned in the search for fresher flavors.
Chain restaurants and dive bars will still carry the juice because of its easy storage, recognizability, and the popularity of cranberry juice in the wake of the cosmopolitain craze, but the respected cocktail bars of the world have abstained.
I believe that there could be a place in a high-quality cocktail bar for pure, 100% cranberry juice. It's extremely bitter and can provide a nice balance for spirits that taste sweet. Also, during cranberry season, I've seen great bars use fresh cranberries to make syrups and garnishes that go toward cocktails that make playful tongue-and-cheek references to the cosmo. In this way, The Cosmopolitan has become farcical. Still, many bartenders will not touch cranberry juice (even 100%) because there is still a sentiment to completely divorce a quality bar from the ethos of The Cosmopolitan and all of the "Sex & The City" cultural baggage that comes with it.
Eastwood, Benjamin. (1856) The Cranberry and Its Culture.
Cape Cod Cranberry Grower’s Association. www.cranberries.org
Chiriko, Rob. (2005) Field Guide to Cocktails. Quirk Books.
Saucier, Ted. (1962, original 1951). Bottoms Up. New York: Greystone Press.
Bergeron, Victor J. (1970) “The Real Mai Tai Story: Let’s Set the Record Straight.” As seen on http://www.tradervics.com/maitaistory-0.html
Felten, Eric. (2008, June 21) “Cranberry Cocktail Confusion” in The Wall Street Journal. Online at http://online.wsj.com/public/article_print/SB121399651293592873.html